Whitefella magic: a posthumanist take on the Dark Emu debate

The Sutton and Walshe book, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, did not start the debate over Pascoe’s Dark Emu, but it has certainly escalated it to a broader public. Now there are numerous reviews, essays and opinions, from Geoffrey Blainey in The Australian (an ideological rant that even manages to drag in the Federal Labor leader for criticism) to Guy Rundle in Crikey (tying himself in rhetorical knots trying to defend Pascoe). It’s another battle in the culture wars, reminiscent of the one led by Keith Windschuttle on Aboriginal history twenty-odd years ago. Is that really what Sutton and Walshe wanted? Or do they just want to defend the pursuit of truth by the best possible means?

No doubt, they would say the latter. Outraged by the factual and rhetorical slippages in Dark Emu, they set out to straighten the record and defend a particular mode of truth telling, one we can rightly call the discourse of the human sciences, in their case via the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology. This is a discourse of fairly recent origin, originating in Europe in the late nineteenth century. It is nothing compared to the knowledge passed on across the millennia by hundreds of diverse Aboriginal peoples inhabiting the continent: nothing in terms of its longevity, perhaps even in terms of its relevance, as we shall see.


The ‘God trick’

This discourse of the human sciences is a very powerful tool in generating knowledge about Aboriginal Australia. Wherever it goes, its practitioners can produce knowledge by translating into written English texts what they are observing and being told by Aboriginal knowledge holders. Whether they are being told about the tjukurpa (dreaming) in central Australia or the bugarrigarra in the Kimberley, they produce the same kind of text in a special kind of academic English. Which is fine, these are very useful records, but they have their limits.

Yet the discourse is a powerful one; it can perform a magical trick. The person writing it can supposedly see objectively and omnisciently; they can see the whole country from above: the first image in Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? is a map of Australia. From this initial viewpoint, what Donna Haraway described as ‘the God trick’, one can zoom in on the details and describe them.

The practitioners of this discourse are equally mobile. They can pop up as expert witnesses in Native Title hearings across the country, with an account of Ngarinyin kinship structures or Kaurna governance models. As authorities, they can cite earlier experts and their own first-hand experience with Aboriginal knowledge holders (or ‘co-researchers’; they used to be called ‘informants’). Most often, these knowledge holders do not claim such universal expertise. They stick to their own Countries. If asked, they often say, ‘I don’t know, you will have to ask the elders’—even if they do know. The protocol is to defer to the authority of the elders. Imagine if a social scientist said that? Or said, ‘It isn’t my place to interpret what these Ngarinyin people are saying; you will have to ask them.’

But one skill the human scientist does have is knowing, through experience, just which Ngarinyin experts to ask. Such valuable translators, negotiators and advocates, I should add, will always be needed.


Spiritual propagation

Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? has an early chapter on ‘spiritual propagation’, which is a pervasive Aboriginal practice of ensuring the maintenance of other species and things through mimetic or sympathetic magic. For instance, they cite the Wik of Cape York performing an action to maintain the supply of goose eggs at a site where there are baler shells in a depression in the ground and people go there to ‘throw’ debris and grass, call on the powers of the ancestors, and rearrange the shells which ‘represent’ the goose eggs.

Far from denouncing this performance as ‘mumbo-jumbo’ (as those ‘civilised’ people who came up with the phrase used to do), the human scientists take it quite seriously, which is an aspect of their own performance. It is a part of their magic to incorporate the various magics of the others.

Missionaries, back in the day, intent on installing their own god, used to burn the fetishes of the ‘natives’. Bruno Latour has delved into this desire to ‘believe in naive belief’, the suggestion that fetishes, objects invested with mythical powers, are mere fabrications, and that ‘facts’ are not. Building on his earlier work in the anthropology of science, he uses the notion of ‘factish gods’ to explore a way of respecting the objectivity of facts and the power of fetishes without forgetting that both are fabricated. 

This is why I say that the work of the human scientist is a performance, like the goose egg one. Facts are not plain facts, sitting out there waiting for our recognition; they have to be brought into being with curiosity then some kind of funding, nurtured, celebrated and maintained in laboratories and seminars, and then propagated in the form of books. Let’s not forget, the fetish-burners on the African continent were installing an Abrahamic religion of the book, and these objects themselves continue to have a fetish-like power.

Like Pascoe’s book. It was very good at spiritual propagation, which is very annoying for the human scientists. With no small amount of myth-nurturing of its own, it reached all the way from high praise in Federal parliament, in a speech by Anthony Albanese, to editions of children’s versions of the book, earning good money for the small publisher, Magabala, in Broome. Its seeds were broadcast with a large bandwidth. But Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, despite its powers, has the narrow bandwidth of academic readership, except when it is catapulted via polemic into the journalism of The Good Weekend.

Pascoe’s myth-nurturing is identified by Sutton; and I see it as another play of whitefella magic. For what Pascoe does is incorporate the old European myth of civilisational advancement, implying that Aboriginal people were progressing through an agricultural stage, with villages, sewn clothes, and so on, something his readers were urged to marvel at. Sutton counter-argues that this ignores the fact that Aboriginal people were already fully civilised as ‘hunter-gatherers’ (for want of a better label) through the millennia, with complex and sustainable knowledges and practices, all adapted to what different Countries had laid out in the Dreamings. Pascoe’s use of whitefella magic performed its role; it got a message out there. But, armed with the facts that they say the public should have known, Sutton and Walshe say it is the wrong message.

But there is another implicit message in Pascoe’s project, which is much more than a book, because it is several books, lecture tours, regenerative farming with native grasses and collaborations with Aboriginal people. It is a message of continuity for Aboriginal people, a continuity that Pascoe claims as his own, and that Sutton and Walshe don’t want to go into because their discourse is not equipped to deal with the twists and turns of positionality that they bat away as ‘identity politics and racial polemics’.

Sutton and Walshe’s ‘factish gods’ repel such positionality, even as they try to promote the universality of their discourse of the human sciences as simply ‘scientific and scholarly’. It performs a clear exposition of the facts, without any of that other kind of whitefella magic, called ‘theory’. What kind of theory underpins their text? Do they embrace the recent ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology? – Certainly not. Any interest in ‘multi-species ethnography’? – No. But there is the constant appeal to ‘culture’ and ‘philosophy’, something that the ‘Old People’ have, and which Pascoe has neglected to include. But I can’t find any explicit philosophy in the book. What would have happened, I wonder, if they had invited a philosopher to contribute a chapter or two? Who? Certainly Mary Graham, Val Plumwood or Helen Verran would have had interesting things to say, moving the conceptual furniture around a bit. This might take us in the direction of the posthuman critique of classical humanism, something that may well have been around ever since Nietzsche.


‘Human, all too human’

I like very much Sutton and Walshe’s use of the phrase ‘skilled ecological agents’, a phrase consonant with the work of the late Deborah Bird Rose, who took Australian anthropology in a new direction. Her environmental and ‘posthuman’ emphasis decentred the human in the human sciences, that concept being axiomatic in earlier years. ‘Anthropology is the scientific study of man’ would have been the first sentence of many a textbook.

But if the human is not central, what is? Many Aboriginal people would say ‘Country’ is, or use the word for dreaming. And, if elaborated, the animistic or totemic kinship relations that humans have with honey-ants, pelicans, rivers and so on, are the important relationships that must be maintained as more permanent than our brief, transient human lives. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? has lots of useful information on this topic, gathered from decades of immersion in the field and in the literature. And, it could be argued, this is all about ecological management, something which is very much an urgent matter for our times.

The book would have been more innovative had it embraced more of the Aboriginal ‘pre’ or ‘post’-humanism that exists in practice and on Country. For example, Sutton has an explanatory trope, that ‘the spiritual worked hand in hand with the physical’. This is used to reconcile a pragmatic action (like leaving some plants for next season) with an ancestral story (the ‘spiritual’). But what if that binary is irrelevant, what if no one in that Aboriginal group habitually opposes ‘the spiritual’ and ‘the physical’? Sutton knows this is possible because he states ‘the category ‘natural’ is foreign to Aboriginal tradition’. Without the ‘natural’ (aligned with the ‘physical’ in the Western tradition), the opposition to ‘culture’ becomes difficult to maintain, so some use the neologism, ‘naturecultures’. As we know, ‘culture’ along with ‘the human’, are cornerstones of the classical human sciences. The task remains: to rebuild a set of descriptions of human and nonhuman life on the continent, and to do that you need more philosophy, more Aboriginal concepts, and less kow-towing to the ‘factish gods’.


Image: A detail from the cover of Dark Emu

Stephen Muecke

Stephen Muecke is Adjunct Professor at the Nulungu Research Institute Notre Dame University, Broome, and Emeritus Professor of Ethnography at the University of New South Wales.

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  1. A brilliant & insightful review..!

    It brings to mind, Wittgenstein’s critique of Fraser’s “Golden Bough”, but with a far gentler handling of the conceptual differences in its prepping for the landing of its blows.

    Well done & thank you.

  2. Yes, this quite an insightful review by Stephen Muecke and quite a refreshing one too, in that it decries the shallow rhetoric of the ‘Culture wars’ to move the debate back to where it belongs – to a discussion of the problems of Epistemology in the Human Sciences. All too often however, this space is filled by modish ‘Theory’ and I am not convinced that Stephen has entirely escaped this accusation by his discussion of ‘factish gods’, which seems to me to be merely another entry into the worst kinds of cultural relativism (although I could be mistaken – he could be accusing Sutton and Walshe of this, he doesn’t make this quite clear I don’t think).In any case, I remain perplexed that amongst all this, no mention is made of Bill Gammage’s ‘Greatest Estate on Earth’, which might be considered one of the most important works of Australian History published in the last fifty years and which although it didn’t generate as much heat as ‘Dark Emu’, certainly shed more light.

    1. Nice comment on Latour’s “Factish Gods’ book: “What immense spiritual and intellectual relaxation! With what vivacity and cunning Bruno Latour gets us out of the cage holding us hostage to the mumbo-jumbo of Subjects and Objects all these long years of Western Civ. Out-fetishizing these fetishes, nudging us toward the mastery of non-mastery, he invites us thereby to the sort of thinking needed to remake a failing world.”- Michael Taussig , Columbia University,

      1. Yes, I think that by the sounds of it, Latour inhabits the same refuse bin as all those other Gallic charlatans who think that obfuscation is profundity. That sort of stuff might wash at Flinders, but most self-respecting Philosophy departments understand the problematic nature of French ‘intellectuals’ and steer well clear of them.

  3. I thought Sutton and Walshe’s book to be an invitation to go deeper in our white fella understanding of Australia’s first people.
    It does not lack, for any ascribed duality, any measure in achieving this.

  4. I very much appreciate Chris Muecke’s essay which has help me clarify my own thinking.

    However, having begun to read the Sutton and Walshe book and now the Muecke criticism of that, I find this debate very confusing and possibly irrelevant to our understanding of first nations people’s culture and land management. Having sat at the feet of a number of first nations people showing and describing their land management practices, it seems pointless to me to ask whether they are practising agriculture or hunter gathering. I have simply been impressed by their very deep understanding of country and their very highly developed land management skills.

    As an older person, I was brought up believing that hunter gatherer societies were at a lower level of development than agricultural societies. Implicit in this thinking is that white fellas are intellectually superior and justified in using empty land more productively. Hence my problem with the discussion of whether first nation people are hunter gathers or agriculturalists and the associated deep-seated racism and ongoing genocide that accompanies it.
    It seems to me that Pascoe wanting to break through this conundrum points out some first nations practices that we might consider equivalent and even superior to what white fellas know – referring to them as agriculture, permanent settlement and sophisticated fishing techniques, possibly developed earlier than elsewhere. He has rightly captured the popular imagination. Implicit in the Sutton and Walshe book is that Pascoe is a black upstart and needs to be shut down.

    From my own limited experience, it seems to me that by learning of first nations land management practices not only are we learning about what was, but also what could be – their practices, if understood and adopted, could be the future of our land management, as we move hopefully away from large scale and destructive industrial farming and to better methods of land and fire management. Using outdated thinking about hunter gathering and agricultural societies has little to offer. Obviously, we cannot embrace first nations land management without understanding something of their culture – so much of which is deep, insightful and refreshing and we could do well to embrace it. Then we might become truly Australian.

  5. But if the human is not central what is? I love that this question is asked and we need to keep asking it. Thank you Stephen I appreciate your view.

  6. That Sutton and Walshe’s performative ritual escalated into a campaign in 9/Fairfax purporting to “debunk” Dark Emu shows that the authors are guided by the very whitefella positionality Meuke describes.

  7. An insightful review Stephen. Thank you for referring to Val Plumwood, Deborah Bird Rose and others. A salutory reminder that there are other viewpoints that owe little to white western patriarchal tropes and ‘his’tories. The ‘rational’ has ruled for too long.

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